Football fans need no invitation to wrap themselves in the comforting blanket of nostalgia. Every last-minute winner, every derby triumph, every accolade, is another opportunity to pass down treasured memories to the next generation. The details of the day may become hazy, but only due to the swirling mix of emotions from such an occasion.
The players who were responsible for luring out such fervour become titans, larger, more god-like, with each recollection. Time only adds to this sensation and the men that reaped such riches will always have a pedestal to be placed upon.
With Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season by Amy Lawrence – this is the reason I initially felt jealousy upon poring over the pages.
You see, the reason for my own particular green-eyed monster reading over my shoulder was because this fantastic book is a rollcall of heroes. This is manna from heaven for every Gooner across the globe. The unique take on what will forever be immortalised as ‘The Invincible Season’ is that the author was granted access to each and every member of this illustrious team. Hence my envy.
I soon overcame this as I became further wrapped in my own recollections. The beauty of this book is that because it surrounds such an emotive subject, as you read you slowly become intrinsically connected as your memories intertwine with the moments so expertly written by Lawrence.
The book starts with a foreword from the man who predicted this incredible feat the season before and was scoffed at by all and sundry – such was the outlandish nature of the claim. Much is made of this moment and Lawrence goes even further by tracking down the journalist who asked him the question – which was actually bait left in the vain hope that normally astutely answered Wenger may bite and provide the scribes in the room with a headline – if Arsenal can go through a season unbeaten. Wenger is unusually candid despite his apparent disregard for the past and admits that certain players in the dressing room blamed him for the title that was lost in 2003 thanks to the pressure put on the squads shoulders by this weighty claim. It whets the appetite for the rest of the book.
The prologue is what really piqued my interest. Having read a host of Arsenal-related tomes and reviewed each and every one, this book stood out from the moment I devoured this short chapter. It wasn’t how it was written – like the rest of the book, it was faultless – but who it was written by. Lawrence is a fan, first and foremost, and her prologue is the perfect window into her excitement for this project. It also looks at one of the forgotten elements of the Invincible campaign – Highbury. From the Marble Halls to the unparalleled access she had as a member of the press, she waxes lyrical about what was a stately but almost ethereal home for the Gunners. The close nature of the pitch and the way the stadium embraced every facet of its rich history are just a few of the elements which make up a perfect foundation on which to build a legend.
The first chapter centres on what is probably the most iconic moment in the entire season, but also the closest the team come to defeat. Predictably enough, it was against their closest rivals Manchester United and the focus of attention was the late penalty on which history would hinge. The backdrop to this slice of time was eighty one minutes of two teams holding each other at arms length, neither willing to over extend and therefore leaving themselves open to their opponents lethal attack. Then Ruud Van Nistelrooy – hero of Old Trafford but pantomime villain in the eyes of Gooners – further cemented his place in Arsenal’s Wall of Infamy when he fouled Patrick Vieira and then proceeded to feign injury when the Gunners Captain’s telescopic leg stretched out to reciprocate malice but didn’t manage to make contact. The Dutch striker’s histrionics were worthy enough to sway the match official to give Arsenal’s talisman an early bath and Lawrence pulls a masterstroke by including Vieira’s thoughts whilst enduring a torturous wait in the dressing room. His comments give the distinct feeling of a predator in full flight, the heat of the battle the only thought that remains – only to then be stopped suddenly and be unable to continue. He was coiled tighter than a spring whilst he endured some of the longest minutes he has ever had to suffer. It perfectly encapsulates the perfect competitor that Patrick was and the magma-hot atmosphere the match was played in.
The chapter goes on to illustrate the now infamous player reaction after Ruud Van Nistelrooy smacked his contentious penalty kick against the crossbar. Every player who was present on that symbolic day gave their recollections – most vivid was Keown of course, but it should be noted every player had an opinion, even those who didn’t play such as Campbell, whose compassionate leave gave way for Keown to immortalise the team ethos. Every player mentioned the anger that was dispelled by the fluffed penalty as if justice was served, but the comedic highlight of the book must go to Jens Lehmann. His memory of the game goes completely against the grain of every teammate as he simply says he enjoyed the white-hot setting and loved every minute. Mad Jens Lehmann Ladies and Gentlemen.
From Lauren dedicating a goal to Kolo Toure’s recently departed mother to Freddie Ljungberg’s description of how he adopted ‘The Arsenal Way’ to every club he played for after leaving. Via Vieira’s first day at Arsenal when Tony Adams declared his alcoholism and not forgetting the tip of the cap to Dennis Bergkamp for being the cornerstone for the reinvention of the football club. The book doesn’t simply chronicle the season in which Arsenal went unbeaten. Every chapter serves as a reminder that this achievement was years in the making and required an incomprehensible amount of building blocks.
It isn’t merely a glorious bathing in the sun-kissed waters of victory either. Lawrence includes the failure of the previous season frequently to reclaim the title they so frustratingly gave up and throughout the volumes she isn’t loath to mention the failures to win the Champions League with such an incredible team. It must be highlighted that Wenger faced a ridiculous schedule during which his team were dumped out of the F.A Cup by Manchester United but perhaps more tellingly, they slipped against Chelsea in the European Cup. This rankles with most fans and Wenger himself shoulders the blame for his team selection. The F.A should have intervened seeing as Arsenal played all of their rivals in a short space of time but we have all played the blame game poring over the remains of what could have been. What maybe could have been added is more of a take on the managers approach to tactics as you often feel the brain which is responsible for a perfect league season is perhaps less understanding of the minutiae of team instructions.
Rightfully so, the failures were included as they make the triumph seem all the more vibrant. What really makes this a must read for all Gooners is the candid nature of the answers given by the players who forever etched their names upon the annals. It is absolutely fascinating to read their real opinions on the pivotal moments of what is surely the best League season any team can obtain. No sugar coating from the author nor the superstars who eventually celebrated so wildly on the culmination of the campaign. Every word from Campbell, Bergkamp, Henry, Pires et al become merged with your own recollections, seemingly making them more real as their own opinions on each moment add colour and lustre.
Each fan has their favourite players, but reading this book gives you the chance to go past the epidermis of what most documentaries and interviews cover. What is perhaps most important is Amy Lawrence shedding light on what maybe Wenger’s biggest strength and the cement on which the team was built. The team dynamics should have been impossible and the theme of the book returns to this repeatedly as each character – much like a team of Superheroes – added their own certain nuance to the equation. The majority of the squad though, had ridiculously strong wills and clashes in the dressing room and training ground were more frequent than the harmonious facade the team wore on matchday. Lawrence goes to great lengths to illustrate and flesh out each personality so you can insert yourself into what must have been a swirling mess of testosterone, winning mentality and hatred of failure.
The team clicked. Whatever words were said in anger were more importantly forgotten about as each player knew what a special group they were part of. Wenger’s greatest triumph was painstakingly assembling such a powerful machine – part by part, with the last piece being unhinged but ultimately successful Lehmann – and keeping each man focused on smashing preconceptions. Not only did his expert hand create the team on which this book is named, but what is also mentioned is that throughout the world, Arsene’s particular brand of ‘Wengerball’ is recognised.
He may divide opinion currently, but what cannot be denied is that without the input of Arsene Wenger, we would certainly not be in a position to be so demanding. Lawrence has created the perfect insight, past and present, of what will always be the Frenchman’s crowning glory. Whatever he achieves from here, the Invincibles will be immortal and therefore, he will be too.
I implore all Gooners to read this book, especially in the moments when we may not be hitting the heights we expect. The author has created the perfect blend of memories, sweet and bitter, but ultimately will leave you wondering where the two hundred-odd pages have disappeared to. You will rampantly read each chapter and the nostalgia ride you embark on leaves you realising what becomes stronger with each season that passes –
That we were Invincible.
The book can be bought in all versions, hardcover to ebook. All can be found here